Age dating dinosaur bones

One of the tricks you learn hunting dinosaurs in Canada is to look for orange. But in the middle of the drab sandstones of the badlands – a dry landscape where wind and water have worn away much of the rock – you’ll sometimes catch a flash of fluorescent orange.

Walk over and you may well find a dinosaur bone weathering out. The bone gives the lichen a stable foothold in the eroding landscape, it’s porous, storing moisture during droughts, and full of minerals like phosphate, vital to a growing lichen.

It’s strange to think that something that died 76m years ago plays a role in modern ecosystems, but life is opportunistic. Bacteria thrive in hydrothermal vents, fungi grow inside Chernobyl, nematode worms crawl under Antarctic ice fields.

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What we found was astonishing: a thriving community of bacteria.No detectable carbon-14 should survive from 76m years ago, but the bones were full of it.Either these dinosaurs died a few thousand years ago, or they were contaminated by living things.Moreover, organic tissues and vessel-like structures extracted from the bones – similar to those identified elsewhere as dinosaur tissues – glow like a Christmas tree when stained with a flourescent dye that binds to DNA.The abundant DNA suggests these organics are made by bacteria, not dinosaurs.

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